Asif Kapadia’s Amy played in theaters this summer to favorable notices and has since gone on to win the majority of this year’s critics’ awards for Best Documentary. I decided to catch up with it this week, and I’m very glad I did: the film is a devastating portrait of the late Amy Winehouse, the British jazz and R&B vocalist who recorded two hit albums and won four Grammys before dying of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of twenty-seven.
The film has been assembled almost entirely out of archival materials—interviews conducted with Winehouse before her death, concert footage, home movies, outtakes from recording sessions. As such, there’s very little of the “talking head” shots of interviewees that so often bog down documentaries of this kind. Instead, Amy achieves a kind of mosaic effect in which many small fragments come to form a complete image of the artist; even as friends and collaborators recall their memories of Winehouse in voice-over, it’s her presence that dominates. Hearing her perform many of her hits (“Stronger Than Me,” “Rehab,” “Back To Black”) as well as some of her less popular songs, we’re made to marvel at Winehouse’s remarkable talent as both a vocalist and a writer (Kapadia often prints her lyrics on the screen so that we can read along as she sings). Because Winehouse’s career was often upstaged by her own volatile personal life and highly publicized battles with addiction, one is likely to forget—or to have never realized—just how gifted she was. Seeing the entirety of her career compressed into a two-hour film, the seriousness of her commitment to her craft becomes clearer than ever.
The film suggests that, like so many musicians and actors before her (Marilyn Monroe comes to mind) Winehouse’s personality was too mercurial to withstand the violent pressures of superstardom. Although we’ve become used to seeing this narrative repeated ad nauseum in the tabloids, VH1’s Behind the Music, and the E! True Hollywood Story, bearing witness to Winehouse’s rise and fall feels painful and urgent. At times, knowing how the story will end intensifies its poignancy: when, early in her career, Winehouse tells an interviewer, “I don’t think I could handle [becoming famous]…I think I would go mad,” the effect is chilling.
Having watched the film earlier this week, I remain haunted by it. I can’t stop thinking about a sequence late in the film in which Kapadia intercuts photographs of Winehouse looking her worst—strung out on drugs, wasting away from bulimia—with her absolutely wrenching acoustic version of “Love Is a Losing Game” at the 2009 Mercury Awards. That scene (along with a later sequence in which we see Winehouse recording a jazz duet with Tony Bennett) best exemplifies the care with which Kapadia balances the tragic pathos of her death with the electrifying thrill of her performances. We come away from the film with the sense that the same pain that fueled Winehouse’s music may also have doomed her. A losing game, indeed.